Navajo Nation Highlights the Value of the Environmental Justice

by Arthur “Butch” Blazer

About the author: Butch Blazer serves as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. Previously, he had served as the first Native American appointed as “State Forester” of New Mexico. [cross-posted from the USDA Blog on January 29, 2016]

 

thur “Butch” Blazer and colleagues on a tour of Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona led by Michelle Curry. Diné College is a community college serving the Navajo Nation.

Arthur “Butch” Blazer and colleagues on a tour of Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona led by Michelle Curry. Diné College is a community college serving the Navajo Nation.

I recently traveled to New Mexico and Arizona to visit with local Navajo government leaders, Tribal College officials, and community members to hear about life on the Navajo Reservation. Michael Burns, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was also there to discuss an important new collaboration, the College/Underserved Community Partnership Program (CUPP).

CUPP develops partnerships between underserved communities and geographically close colleges and universities to provide technical support through faculty, students and staff at no cost to those communities. One of my top priorities is for USDA to help EPA expand the CUPP program to involve Tribal communities and colleges to advance the cause of environmental justice.

The first step in establishing these community-to-college relationships is asking community members what type of assistance they need. We help bring everyone together and facilitate how to better meet these local needs in a creative way that also provides hands-on, real-world experience for the students and faculty in the region.

Mr. Burns described some exciting examples of CUPP program successes so far, such as how Tuskegee University architecture students developed an alternate transportation plan for the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail area that also improves access for families to food, health facilities and employment opportunities in rural Alabama.

In New Mexico, we met with the leaders of the Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K’aan and Upper Fruitland chapters of Navajo Nation. The Navajo chapter leaders were interested in how we could bring the CUPP program to their communities and involve students from local Tribal Colleges in delivering assistance. Community members also explained that bringing in Tribal College students would provide great role models for other Tribal youth and help develop strong mentoring relationships as well.

We hope to have several Tribal college CUPP partnerships by the spring 2016 semester.

The Navajo chapter leaders also told us about progress being made thanks to a recent USDA Rural Business Development Grant. The grant to Capacity Builders Inc., a local nonprofit, helps them deliver training for chapter officials and community members on how to identify, nurture and fund local business opportunities. This work helps the six chapters support and invest in businesses that create well-paying jobs and improve the quality of life for Tribal families. This is one of 28 such grants totaling $4.3 million Rural Development invested in Tribal communities to support business and regional economic development last year.

In Michigan, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recently used 2014 Farm Bill conservation programs to help two Anishinaabe tribes increase production of wild rice. Wild rice, or manoomin, serves as a staple of the Anishinaabe diet and is culturally and spiritually important to them. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and the USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships are collaborating on nutrition projects that reduce high rates of food insecurity and help Latino communities meet their health goals through La Mesa Completa.

Support for CUPP along with investments and technical assistance like these highlight just a few of the many ways that USDA partners with local organizations to meet the goals in the Department’s 2016-2020 Environmental Justice Strategic Plan—and ensure that the place someone is born doesn’t determine her destiny.

Our draft Environmental Justice Strategic Plan for 2016-2020 and information on how to submit your comments are available on our Environmental Justice homepage and we encourage your input. The public comment period ends Feb. 14, 2016.

Michael Burns from EPA and USDA Deputy Undersecretary Arthur “Butch” Blazer meet with leaders of the Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K’aan and Upper Fruitland chapters of Navajo Nation regarding Federal environmental justice programs.

Michael Burns from EPA and USDA Deputy Undersecretary Arthur “Butch” Blazer meet with leaders of the Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K’aan and Upper Fruitland chapters of Navajo Nation regarding Federal environmental justice programs.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

November is Native American Heritage month. Throughout the month, we will be featuring blogs by EPA and EPA-supported Native American environmental and public health researchers, and about issues related to Tribal Science.

Technical Models Informed by Indigenous Cultural Values

By Len Necefer

Researcher interviewing a women.

Len Necefer conducting surveys with the Navajo Nation.

Growing up in the Navajo Nation, I learned firsthand about the link between the environment and the health of our people. A nonsmoker, my grandfather developed silicosis and had his entire left lung removed at the age of 45, the result of years of unsafe uranium mining practices typical across the Navajo Nation. His health problems were complicated later in life by poor air quality from large coal power plants in the region.

While both uranium and coal provide significant revenue and employment for the tribe, I believed that there must be a way to develop energy resources with fewer consequences to the environment and its people. I believed there could be a way to draw upon the Navajo teachings from my family about my responsibilities to the environment to guide this new path.

I was awarded an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Fellowship in 2012 to pursue my doctoral work at Carnegie Mellon University. My dissertation is focused on developing technical decision tools to help tribal policy makers make more informed decisions on future energy resource development. The tool will track and display culturally-relevant outcomes from different environmental decisions, such as specific impacts on land and water resources uniquely important to the Navajo Nation cultural practices, such as sacred sites and medicinal herbs.

The technical model that I am developing has already been used to illuminate the long-term environmental impacts of energy resource management policies. It will be building upon Tools for Energy Modeling Optimization and Assessment, to consider non-technical factors of energy resource management decisions.

While the technical model provides a necessary framework for assessing different energy resource management pathways, it is important to understand what the Navajo public understands about these issues and what cultural values inform their opinions. In order to understand these perspectives, I conducted interviews and surveys in the Navajo Nation community. In addition to my studies at Carnegie Mellon, I have continued learning about ceremonial traditions in order to accurately represent Navajo perspectives on the environment.

I hope to extend this tool to help other American Indian and Alaskan Native groups make better informed, lower impact energy resource management decisions that are consistent with their own unique cultural values.

About the Author: Former EPA STAR fellow Len Necefer is a member of the Navajo Nation in the southwestern United States. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 2012 with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. His doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University focuses on the intersection between technical and social issues of energy resources, climate change, and sustainability of native nations.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Something to Be Thankful For

By Kathleen Stewart

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

On Thanksgiving, stuffed with turkey and pie, I can summon just enough creativity to be thankful for the usual stuff—a roof over my head, food on the table, and my family’s health and happiness. I don’t tend to remember to be thankful for the modern conveniences that make all of the above possible.

This year, I am officially giving thanks for my natural gas heater. Whenever a slip of chill creeps into my drafty old house, warm nights are just a flip of a switch away. With heat so instantaneously available, it’s easy to forget that 3 billion people worldwide rely on wood, dung, charcoal, coal, and biomass (fuel derived from organic matter, usually plants) to cook for their families and warm their homes.

Even on the Navajo Nation, where high voltage transmission lines crisscross the land to bring electricity to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, approximately 60% of families use coal, coke, or wood to heat their homes. About 30% of families use coal as their primary heating fuel.

In 2010, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Dine College (the Navajo Nation’s institute of higher education) surveyed 137 homes in the Navajo town of Shiprock, NM. In this town, with average December/January lows of 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers found that 77% of the homes used stoves primarily for heating, and 25% of families burned coal for heat in stoves that were not specifically designed for coal. They also found that 26% of the stoves were ten or more years old.

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

The researchers noted that many of the stoves were improperly vented, with visible cracks in the chimneys, or no chimney at all.

The indoor smoke poses serious health risks, particularly for children and the elderly, but there is no easy solution. There are no EPA certified coal stoves, and most newer coal stoves are designed to burn cleaner-burning anthracite coal, not the types (bituminous and subbituminous) available—cheap or free—on the Navajo Nation. With a median household income of $20,000 and limited existing infrastructure, gas and electricity are generally too costly.

That’s why we and our EPA colleagues have teamed up with partners at Dine College to identify and research heating options that will reduce exposure to coal smoke from home heating on the Navajo Nation. The end result will help provide stakeholders with an understanding of the best alternatives to reduce health and environmental impacts from home heating—alternatives that are technically, economically, and culturally feasible.

Last night I fell asleep curled around my home’s heater vent after the kids went to bed. I crave being warm like a snail craves its shell. In fact, I am actually allergic to being cold. Look that allergy up and then be thankful for two new things this Thanksgiving.

Learn more about EPA research and programs on how to heat your home while minimizing the health impacts:

 

About the Author: Environmental scientist Kathleen Stewart helps concerned communities understand risks from indoor and outdoor air pollution. For this project, she is working with Agency research scientist Paul Solomon, who has extensive experience developing ways to measure particulate matter in the air, and to better understand the relationships between air pollution sources and exposure risks.

 

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.